For the first time in several years, the Utah-BYU game is really about in-state bragging rights.
Usually when these two teams meet, there's more on the line than just Beehive State superiority. This year, the Utes (25-2 overall, 14-1 WAC) have already clinched the WAC title, the Utes and Cougars (17-11, 11-4) have nailed down the top two seeds in the WAC tournament, and both teams appear headed for NCAA tournament berths.Some have questioned whether BYU will get invited to the NCAAs if it loses to Utah, but recent history is in the Cougars' favor. Over the past seven years, the top two regular-season WAC finishers have made the NCAA tournament, and in three of the last four years three WAC teams have made the field.
That still leaves the Cougars with a revenge motive tonight (10 p.m.) in the Marriott Center,
coming off an 81-74 loss to the Utes two weeks ago, and the Utes with the incentive of wanting to protect their lofty No. 9 ranking. The question is, which is a greater motivator?
BYU Coach Roger Reid, always cautious about saying anything that might end up as inspirational material for an opponent, discouraged suggestions that the Cougars might have more on the line in this game.
"I don't think that way," he said. "I don't want to build up anything that's not there. They (the Utes) have as much on the line as we do.
"I think they're going to play hard. If nothing else, they're playing BYU, and I've never seen Utah not play BYU hard."
Utah certainly played hard two weeks ago, beating the taller Cougars on the boards and generally outhustling them. After a couple weeks reflection, however, Reid proposed that his players' effort in the Huntsman Center wasn't all that bad. He noted that his team was down by just three late in the second half, before Utah put it away with a string of free throws.
The biggest advantages Utah has over the Cougars coming into this game are quickness and depth. The quickness difference was particularly evident in the last game, as Utah pulled the BYU defenders out to the perimeter, then beat them to the paint for a rebounding edge.
Reid is more concerned with the Utes' depth advantage. Even without backup center Paul Afeaki, Utah seemed to come at BYU in waves last time, as 11 players got into the game. Since then, the Cougars lost guard Scott Moon, who had surgery Sunday to repair a broken bone in his shooting hand. His official recovery time is three weeks, but he could be back sooner, Reid said.If Mark Heslop replaces Moon in the starting lineup, that leaves BYU with a bench of center-forward Gary Trost, guard Mark Santiago, and seldom-used (recently) forwards Jared Miller and Jeff Campbell. A key to this game probably will be whether somebody unexpected - like Santiago or Miller - can come off the bench and give the Cougars a lift.
One thing to watch will be who Reid assigns to guard Utah's 6-foot-10 Josh Grant. Moon defended him last time, and did a good job of denying passes to Grant, although the Ute junior used eight offensive rebounds to total 17 points.
Something both teams will have to cope with is the ESPN-mandated 10 p.m. starting time. Reid has expressed displeasure in the past with the late starts, but was determined not to let it bother him this time. "We're going to play at 10, so I'm going to feel good about it," he asserted.
Besides the ESPN coverage, the game will be rebroadcast on KBYU-TV (Channel 11) Monday at 9:50 p.m.
COUGAR NOTES: BYU's opening game in the WAC tourney will be 2:35 p.m. Thursday. If they win, they play Friday at 7 p.m. The third (New Mexico) and fourth (Wyoming) seeds in the tourney are set, but the fifth through eighth spots are still up in the air . . . Since the WAC was organized in 1962, Utah and BYU have finished one-two one other time, in 1965-66 . . . A BYU victory would tie the Cougars for the Oquirrh Bucket, symbol of in-state supremacy. In the 15-year history of the Bucket, there has never been a tie.